As music festivals around the world celebrate a relative return to normalcy following two years of pandemic-related cancellations, postponements and downsizing, POP Montreal is gearing up to do what it always does: explore new ground.
For the renowned tastemaking fest, there’s no such thing as a “back to normal” edition because they’re never trying to do the same festival twice.
“I think the ‘back to normal’ mentality misses the complete point of what’s happening in the world,” says POP Montreal creative director Daniel Seligman, BA’00, who has been at the helm of the annual festival since it first started in 2002.
“What is normal, and why would we want to go back to it?”
What ties the upcoming 21st edition of POP Montreal – happening this year between September 28 and October 2 – to previous iterations is a steadfast commitment to Montreal’s musical underground and influential, often unheralded artists from elsewhere.
In the beginning, it meant providing space to future indie rock stars like Stars and Wolf Parade, but also booking cult icons like Burt Bacharach, David Byrne and Patti Smith. While many of today’s local acts may not carry the same cultural cachet, in a few years the likes of Magi Merlin and Lydia Képinski could become household names.
As for established international guests, this year there’s underground UK funk band Cymande and teenaged punk stars The Linda Lindas among the hundreds of acts that will play in dozens of venues across the city.
There are some big-name performers with Montreal ties taking part in this year’s festival too. Former Montrealer Allison Russell, who picked up three Grammy nominations earlier this year for her critically acclaimed album Outside Child, will be taking part, as will hometown hero Martha Wainwright. Bran Van 3000 will wrap up the 25th anniversary tour of its landmark album Glee with two POP Montreal shows.
While the festival is continually seeking out the next great artist or looking to uncover an obscure old favourite, times have forced Seligman and his team to think about the future of the concertgoing experience. They did a mostly online edition in 2020 and held an intimate version a year later with both virtual and in-person events. In 2022, there’s still a not-gone-yet pandemic to consider, but also travel difficulties that can keep artists from fulfilling their obligations.
“We’re trying to learn from what’s been going on and reimagine a festival where it’s not just about trying to cram as many people into a room as possible,” says Seligman. “People want to party, especially people in their twenties who missed two years of their lives, but I think we need to approach it with a little more compassion and sense of care. But we’ve learned the last two years that people truly need social interaction.”
Compared to other cities, Montreal was largely spared when it came to venue closures and other music industry contractions. Even briefly shuttered Saint-Laurent Boulevard mainstay Casa del Popolo was resuscitated for this June’s Suoni Per Il Popolo festival.
Now more than ever, small venues that dot the urban landscape are pivotal in keeping Montreal’s reputation as a music city alive, especially as rising rents push young artists away from the Plateau-Mile-End core.
By decentralizing the action, POP Montreal gets to highlight these important venues every year, and you never know which one is going to become the talk of the town during the fest. That unpredictability is a good thing when it comes to underground music: it means there are new, vibrant scenes sprouting up in unexpected places.
“We’re starting to see people and venues resurfacing,” says Seligman. “We were fortunate to not have too many devastating losses and new places are popping up. With our constant influx of new people coming to our universities [and forming bands], there’s never a dearth of new music. Maybe it’s different this time because it’s been harder to congregate, but people are still making music.”
Seligman says he still gets a thrill discovering new local talent.
“I don’t know if I can pinpoint something and say, ‘this is the new sound of Montreal.’ Is there a Montreal sound? Even at the height of Arcade Fire, none of the bands really sounded like each other. And that’s what made Montreal and those bands interesting. When it comes to artists coming out of Montreal, they’re always carving a new sound and that’s what keeps things exciting.”
Seligman has brought a few legends to town for the fest and is happy to report that most of them lived up to their lofty reputations.
“For Patti Smith, we were being dismissed by her agent a little, but she ended up reaching out because she wanted to do the festival,” Seligman recalls. “She did experimental poetry, she did a talk and I drove her around the city. She wanted to go to Schwartz’s. She went everywhere with a camera. It was really inspiring the way she approached the festival as an artist. She was fully present and participated in the festival, it wasn’t just about playing a show and leaving.”
Another legend who impressed Seligman was Buffy Saint-Marie.
“She was just the most humble, cool person you could possibly imagine. When they live up to your expectations, that’s definitely one of the coolest aspects of working with such esteemed artists.”
Seligman majored in religious studies at McGill, and all these years later, he can see how his studies relate to his current work. For one thing, there’s the integral community aspect that runs through religious and musical congregations alike. Music scenes are also rooted in shared philosophies.
“Take rave culture, for instance,” Seligman said, referring to a set of rules for raves called PLUR: Peace, Love, Unity, and Respect.
“Even back at McGill I loved throwing parties. It’s something I enjoy, that communal experience. There’s something to be said for kids who seek out that kind of group experience and find it in joining a band, going to a show, or joining a music scene.”